I’m not exactly a green plantain, but as someone who landed in Key West a little over eight years ago, I also don’t yet have much Conch cred. So, when confronted with tales of the glory days of my adopted island, I find myself sometimes leaning toward petulant teen, giving an inward eye-roll at the rose-colored stories of the 1970s and ’80s. Until recently. My latest read may have just changed my outlook.
Rita Troxel’s book, “Home at the End of the World,” is a collection of stories from that era, written by those who lived it, and lived to tell about it. Each account retains the author’s original voice — some eloquent to the point of poetics, some jarring, some just drop-dead-drunken hilarious. It only takes a few stories to create the arc and evoke a vivid image of what was (I have to admit) a truly singular era in Key West’s history.
Troxel conceived of the concept over 15 years ago. “We would have conversations and inevitably it would go back to us recounting stories and contradicting one another’s versions. I thought, ‘I need to start gathering these stories.’ People have passed, people were aging, people were forgetting. It became evident that this was an important era to document.” Social media had yet to take hold, so Troxel set out to gather stories via word of mouth. As word spread, she would come home to discover literary treats — a stack of papers from Tony Yaniz crammed into her mailbox or a typed story delivered from Amsterdam.
For artist John Martini, one of the earliest contributors who penned his story, “A Spiritual Center,” 15 years ago, looking back also means looking forward. Martini describes the ’70s and ’80s as a transitional period, during which Key West forged its identity and developed what would become its creative legacy. “Key West was built with a lot of energy, a lot of smarts.” Martini sees that spirit being carried on by subsequent generations, though he understands the hints of hesitation between generations. He recounts one of his first days in Key West, sitting at Fogarty’s, filling out postcards for friends back home. The bartender picked up on his new island shine and leaned over to chide him for arriving too late —“oh yeah, you’re arriving and I’m outta here. You shoulda been here in the ’60s!” It’s hard to say where that bartender ended up. Martini, on the other hand, still lives on the island he first called home in the ’70s, sharing tall tales from the past and keeping a keen eye on the future with projects like “Reimagining Key West,” a platform seeking ideas for creative reform and sustainable solutions for preserving island life.\
For other contributors, the process of committing their tale to print is warm nostalgia, a way of revisiting old friends, old haunts. Andrea “The Greek” Weitz wrote her piece, “Good Deeds,” as both a reverie and a tribute to friends who became family. “The quality of friendship is different down here than in the rest of the world. In other places, it’s like ‘friendship lite.’” Those friendships nurtured her and shaped the life she lives and loves to this day. And to hear her tell it, it’s been a wild ride so far. “I feel like I’ve lived a minimum of 10 lifetimes in my 69 years.”
As dedicated friends kept the emotional stories pouring in, Troxel realized she truly had a project on her hands. Two years ago, she fully committed to the task of bringing the book to life. “I felt the promise I had made to these writers. I sent out an email and said, ‘I’m gonna do this. I’m gonna do this now.’” And now, after untold hours of coordination, she and her fellow writers can hold in their hands an account of those very special days. And the result accomplishes exactly what was intended. It serves as both a time capsule of a foundational era and as an entertaining and enlightening read. For those who lived it, it’s a pitch-perfect reminiscence. For those of us who came later, it serves as a humanizing introduction to a time we’ll never experience. It halts the eye-rolls and prompts a reverent pause in their place.
The success of the book’s voice can be attributed to Troxel’s immaculate curation, and to her choice to preserve not just the tone, but also the verbatim descriptions she received. She told each author that the only changes that would be made would be spelling and minor grammar corrections. Their stories were their stories, as is. It’s a confident choice that sets the collection apart stylistically. Says Troxel, “We pulled no punches. Everyone was very honest with their stories — we wanted the raw living of life in the Keys. We always knew when we were in Key West that the ’70s and ’80s were special but we didn’t realize the depth of our impact, both ours on the community and the community on us.” When asked about her own story, which sets the stage early in the collection, she laughs lightly and simply adds, “We all have a story why we came here. It was a wild time. We were so young.”
Books are available at:
Lower Keys Tackle in Big PIne Key
Boondocks Grille & Draft House on Ramrod Key
Square Grouper in Cudjoe
South Of The Seven on Sugarloaf
Jag Gallery in Key West
Key West Island Books in Key West
Books & Books at The Studios of Key West